Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mont Saint-Michel

Our first picture is from breakfast at our chambres d'hôte outside Gorron. The point is to show how delightfully large the coffee servings have been in France. In Greece and Italy we only got tiny little doll sized cups of coffee (expresso). Even in Italy if we asked for cafe americano it was about two doll cups size. But here in France, if you stipulate cafe, you get a mug or sometimes even a bowl full.

On Friday the ride to Pontorson, just 9k south of Mont Saint- Michel, was through pretty rolling farm land (bored with this yet? Well...that's just what it was). We have been seeing houses with beautiful gardens like this one.

As we got closer to Pontorson we began to smell the sea air, which stimulated our appetite for sea food. We had moules and frites for dinner.

They were great and we can understand why the people have been eating them with such gusto. Saturday morning we decided to take the local bus out to the mount. The highway was marked as a red road and would have a lot of traffic; we also couldn't envision where we would leave the bikes during our wandering. Well the bus was a great decision, the road was busy and there was a huge parking lot with no bicycle parking. Mont St. Michel was the 4th most important Christian pilgrimage site after Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compestela.

The initial sanctuary was built on the site in 708. In 966, Richard I grandfather of William the conquerer, established a Benedictine abbey on the site. They proceeded to build 4 chapels near the top of the mount which would later be the foundations of the Romanesque-Gothic church. These massive columns are under the church and hold up the altar area.

The original church was all Romanesque style (round arches in the front of the picture), but the original transept collapsed and was replaced in the Gothic style (pointed arches in the back of the picture). Being an abbey, there were areas for meditation and study.

The place is an architectural marvel, similar to the Pope's palace, with 4 levels of buildings on top of each other.

We had lunch in the fortified town below the abbey and noticed this terrier taking advantage of the rights of dogs in France.

Dogs are allowed in shops, bars, hotels and restaurants in France. They are very well behaved and seem to have earned their privileges. The tourist crowds were large and walking the streets below the abbey was difficult. We were glad to get on the bus and go back to quiet Pontorson and enjoy an excellent meal at the hotel. Belinda had a marvelous squid stuffed with risotto and we enjoyed a bottle of old vine Pinot Noir which had subtle fruit flavors and a dry finish. It was quite unlike our Monterey county Pinot, but very good. Sunday we head to St. Malo on our last full day in France.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Angers to Gorron

We left Angers and the Loire river on Wednesday morning. Our goal was to hook up with the bike path along the Mayenne river and finish the day at Laval. We rode 37.5 kms before we got to Daon and the start of the bike path. It is not a paved bike path, but has a well packed fine gravel surface. It is a delightful bike path and the river scenery can't be beat.

There are many chateaus in close proximity to the river.

We saw these neat chain driven automobiles at a small town next to the bike path.

The Mayenne river locks were constructed in the 1800's and many are associated with old mill house locations along the river.

We stopped at Laval for the night and ate at a brasserie which had specialities from the Alsace region of France. We ordered the pork choucroute plate which was a selection of four types of cured or smoked pork and a wonderful sauerkraut. It really hit the spot after 87 kms of riding.

Thursday morning we left Laval and had to endure another 36 kms of gorgeous scenery along the Mayenne river.

The house pictured above is one of our dream chateaus. A beautiful house in a beautiful setting with waterfront access. It also epitomizes one of the things we've seen in France. The French seem to maintain the architectural style of the location in new buildings. There is clearly an addition to the old structure pictured above, but the new part has the same roof line and style. We have observed this same thing in the newer homes on the periphery of an old village; they will have the same roofline, roof tiles, and architectural style as the rest of the village. We were unable to make Fougeres on Thursday due to hilly terrain after leaving the river and another potentially long day (90 kms). We saw the sign for a chambres d'hotes and got directions in a small town called Brece. Madame Gisele Lebullenger welcomed us into her home with cold orange juice and water. As you can see, it was a serene and welcoming destination in the country.

Traveling along bike paths on the Loire and Mayenne Rivers got us thinking how much fun kayak trips on either or both rivers would be. Could there be a kayak journey through France in the future? Maybe after kayaking some of the Greek coast! So much to do!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Angers, the Dukes of Anjou, and good king Rene

Angers is the hometown of the Anjou Plantagenet dynasty. In 851, the Count of Anjou set up a lookout post at the confluence of the Loire and Maine rivers to deal with marauding Normans. The spot had also been occupied in Neolithic and Roman times. From the 13th to the 15 centuries a fortress was built and expanded and is known as the Angers chateau.

It has 17 massive towers, a beautiful chapel, a royal residence, gardens, a governor's house, and a massive moat. The moat was never filled with water and housed King Rene's menagerie. It has been filled with gardens since 1910.

The chateau houses the famous Apocalypse tapestry, the largest and oldest tapestry in existence. It was commissioned by the Duke of Anjou, Louis I, in 1375, took 7 years to complete and was 140 meters long and 4.5 meters tall. It tells the story of the Apocalypse based on an 11th century text of St. John. The surviving remnant is only 100 meters long!

The detail and artistry of the tapestry is amazing.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are represented, as well as floods, fire, and the fall of Babylon. The number seven plays a significant role and the devil is a 7 headed dragon. The tapestry was housed for 400 years in the local cathedral after King Rene died and was buried there. It is a gothic cathedral in the Angevin style.

We also visited a local museum containing the work of a local sculptor who was world renowned in the 1800's. David D'Angers sculpted 40 large pieces as commissions for towns and cities across Europe. His statues are representations of important historical figures and the museum houses the plaster originals.

He also sculpted portrait busts of important men living at the time. He did this out of respect for their accomplishments and in the process got to know some very important people. The gallery of busts includes writers, scientists, musicians and political figures. Goethe and Lafayette are shown below.

The city contains many old houses from the late 1300's and early 1400's with amazing wood carvings on the facades.

Over the years we have tried to eat at a Mexican restaurant in each country we visit. So far, in two visits each, this goal has eluded us in Italy and Greece. Last night we found a Mexican restaurant in France and enjoyed a great meal complete with jalapenos!

Angers is a fascinating city that deserves more exploration than we have time to give it. But today we ride north on a two or three day journey to Mont St. Michel to see the famous monastery there.

Three days of countryside

We left Lucon on Saturday and have had three days of riding on small country roads and bike trails through farmland and small forested areas.

Since La Rochelle we have been in an old part of France with almost every village having a medieval church. When we see the steeple we know the next village is close. The weather has been cool and overcast with some light drizzle at times. On Sunday we continued north from Montaigu toward the Loire river. Two villages we passed through were having their annual fetes. The fete is a village party held sometime around July 14 and we seen posters advertising all sorts of entertainment at the different fetes. In the first village we were a little lost when we got to the main square. A group of four young men tried to help us, but they were so drunk they couldn't read the map. That was at 11:30 am and the rest of the village seemed to heading toward the same state of inebriation. In the second village, the fete seemed much more sedate and appeared to be a big luncheon at the park. This old Citroen was parked near where we ate lunch.

We got to the Loire river and crossed over the bridge to Ancenis at the end of day.

The Loire is France's biggest river and is 1000 kms long. It is deemed to be Europe's wildest river, since it is not dammed. The current is very strong and there are large islands and sand banks in the middle of the river and large levees along the sides.

We rode 66 km along the river on the bike trail on Monday and at one point were riding on one of the islands in the middle of the river.

We saw a lot of bicycle tourists on the bike trail and learned that that the trail originates in Nevers near the headwaters of the Loire and ends at the Atlantic ocean near St. Nazaire. We rode the bike trail all the way into Angers, our goal for Monday. There were some nice summer homes close to the city.

Angers has a marvelous chateau that is built on a location that has been fortified since Neolithic times. We will visit that and other wonders of Angers tomorrow.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heading North

As we left La Rochelle, we realized there was some additional information to share about the region. Food wise, we left the land of duck and pate just north of Pau and entered the land of mussels (moules) and oysters (huitres) at Royan. There are many mussel and oyster beds on the extensive tidal mudflats north of Royan and continuing past La Rochelle. You can order a pot of mussels cooked many different ways and it comes with fries (moules et frites). The French in this area must commonly eat mussels, because even young children order them in the restaurants and eat them with gusto.
The strategic location of La Rochelle has been critical many different times in history. It is the easiest port to reach for resupply after coming up the coast of Africa. Many ships would resupply at La Rochelle saving sailing up the Gironde (to Bordeaux) or the Loire (to Nantes) before crossing the Atlantic ocean. La Rochelle was a stopover for slave ships and a point of immigration for settlers of Nouvelle France (Louisiana and Canada). It was also important for the German U-boat fleet during WW II. We saw the German U-boat bunker on our way out of town. It was used for the filming of Das Boat.

We took a bike path through the farmland as we headed north parallel to the coast. The land was flat and full of corn and sunflowers. We could have been in Kansas.

We spent Friday night at Lucon, yet another town with a medieval church.

We are in another part of France with rolling countryside composed of rich farmland and cute villages.

The corn is high, the grazing land is rich and the cows are fat.

We enjoy the rolling hills much more that the flat farmland. The scenery and the bicycling are just more interesting and the day seems to fly by.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

La Rochelle

We planned on visiting La Rochelle due to the many references to it in English naval history. It became part of England when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet (Henry II). Here is a remnant of the castle he built on the Rue du Palais (Palace St.).

La Rochelle was besieged by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627 when it was a hotbed of Protestantism. The siege lasted over a year and over 20,000 citizens of the town died before surrendering. Here is a painting of Richelieu on the barrier built outside the fortified harbor which prevented the British from aiding La Rochelle during the siege.

La Rochelle has passed between England and France many times and was in a strategic position for trade. After the siege in 1628 all the fortifications were removed except the three towers at the entrance to the harbor. The Lanterne tower below was constructed in 1372 and became a lighthouse in 1468. It later became a prison and has the graffiti of numerous sailors carved into the walls.

The St. Nicholas tower construction started in 1345 and was completed in 1372. It was used mainly for defense and the chain across the inner harbor entrance was attached to it's base.

The Chaine tower had the winch system for the chain across the harbor and was an artillery tower. However, the top 14 meters were blown off in an explosion around 1650 and it is only 20 meters tall now.

The cathedral of St. Louis was designed by the king's architect and completed in 1742. It contains some marvelous paintings in it's side chapels and stain glass windows above the nave.

The organ is also impressive.

After dinner on Tuesday night, we stopped in a local shop to taste cognac. Cognac is produced in a region just to the northeast of La Rochelle. The grapes are grown exclusively for cognac and are deemed unacceptable for wine. We tasted 12 and 25 year old cognac and an aperitif called pineau. Pineau is produced in the same region and is made from the first press of grapes with an addition of cognac. It is like a very fine light port.

Wednesday we visited a local museum which had artwork depicting the seige in 1627-1628, a collection of high quality antique china from the region, and the Asian art collection of a French diplomat stationed in southeast Asia who was from La Rochelle. The collection of antique buddhas, wood carvings, and samurai armor was world class. We particularly liked this alabaster and gold Buddha that is about 3 ft. tall.

Thursday we went to the maritime museum and toured three ships, a port tug, a commercial trawler, and a meteorological research vessel.

There was a self guided tour and we saw every part of the ships, engine rooms, quarters, galleys, bridges, etc.

Next we continue our way north towards St. Malo. We will be inland once again and will pass through the Loire river valley. Hopefully the weather will be clearing at least for a few days.